Review: The Wolf Border, Sarah Hall


Sarah Hall’s new novel, The Wolf Border, returns to the Lake District for a sensual page-turning story about love, maturity and “wilding”

The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall review

The new novel from the ever-inventive Sarah Hall does not disappoint. The heady writing conjures the very core of her Lake District environment, an appreciation of the freshness of the natural world to rival that of Wordsworth himself, but in contrast to the poet’s 19th century fastness, Sarah Hall writes wonderfully about sex – real-life, exuberant, tender sex with all its excitement.

The heroine of The Wolf Border is a sensual woman. Born of a misfit mother whose militant exasperation at the conservative ways of her rural neighbors got her in life-long hot water, Rachel is conscious of an inheritance of dissent she both admires and fears. We meet her mother, too, at the end of her life, when her daughter is staying with her in her care home. Binny has lost her long -admired looks but her strong will and spirit of contradiction still burns bright through the suffocating heat of the institution and the decay of old age. For the reader, Rachel could be no one but her mother’s daughter – independent, sometimes intolerant, often self-obsessed and always deeply perceptive. After a sojourn in America on a large nature reservation – plenty of raunchy, reckless, energetic sexual encounters here – Rachel returns to her Cumbrian home to confront her mother’s decline, her family and a new daunting role.

Persuasive liberal Lord Pennington has a daring project in play. He wants to allow a collection of wolves to live on his vast estate, in what is known as a “re-wilding”. Initially skeptical of his intentions and underwhelmed by the prickly assertions of wealth and privilege in his impressive ancestral home, she is won around by the potential of the dream: wolves back in England, on the borders, where they were once princes of the rugged landscape. The animals arrive by crate from Eastern Europe, as locals stage protests at the immense barrier built for the enclosure. Rachel, fearless and forthright, takes them on – and it’s one of the hecklers who declares the secret she has been nervous of disclosing. Rachel is pregnant.

Her masterful capturing of the sensations of carrying a child, the baby’s kicking, and the mental state of expectation all bring the detail of pregnancy into exuberant reality

Few writers, except possibly A.S. Byatt in The Children’s Book, have described the interior state of pregnancy as well as Hall. Her masterful capturing of the sensations of carrying a child, the baby’s kicking, and the mental state of expectation all bring the detail of pregnancy into exuberant reality. This is wonderful stuff. For the reader it’s an adventure into a world little explored, with Hall a sure-footed and often risk-taking guide. Especially delightful is Rachel’s abruptly consummated relationship with Alexander, the Earl’s gamekeeper: Rachel’s bold and unswerving observation of her new lover is brought into more-than-frank but never gratuitous grainy life. Only a writer of Hall’s skill could take on Constance Chatterley territory so confidently in 2015, and tell us new things about women’s and men’s sensuality.

Here’s a page turner for the general reader that explores intriguing questions about our contemporary world: what is nature all about? How much do we want of it? Who is entitled to inhabit it? How far can “natural” be taken in a modern landscape – and where are the limits to the freedom of its ancient species?

The Wolf Border is a hugely exciting account of a woman’s coming of full age and a fascinating philosophical debate on our place as humans in the natural world and where other creatures belong in the society we have created. C